Walking along the bank above the grey green waters of the Ishikari, running full and fast due to snow melt, I disturbed a fox. It was up ahead, sniffing by a wooden post, tawny-coated below the silver-gold sky of a setting sun. It turned my way then ran down towards the water, a dark blur against the snow, brush tail flouncing.
There it rested beneath a bare branched willow and I saw that there were two. They were larger than I expected and I later read that they were most likely Kitakitsune. I tried to capture them with my iPhone but it was twilight, they were far away and on the move, and after three attempts my phone’s batteries expired and it shut down.
I walked on a little then turned and looked back. They’d stopped running and were standing immobile, heads raised, watching. I resumed my walk with a feeling of loss. It’s unlikely I’ll see those two again. Ahead, the sun dropped below the clouds and a sharp wind picked up dry leaves from the snow at my feet. A solitary Tobi circled high in the sky above.
The Kitakitsune, the Tobi, the fluttering leaves, the roiling river, and me. Nothing else moved in the silent landscape. To my left, the Ishikari flowed swiftly to the north, banks stacked with dirty piles of snow sculpted into strange shapes by wind and sun. To my right, rows of pastel houses, shabby-seeming in the twilight, displayed yellow-glowing windows.
You can walk in a foreign country and forget to see the differences while you tread the unfamiliar city footpaths and unexplored tracks by the river. You can investigate routes through powdery snow or earthy tree litter, while disregarding the strange smells and ignoring the different angle of the sun. You can choose to be in the moment or to let your mind drift away.
At 7.45 am on Tuesday 15 May I was sitting in the Koru Lounge of Auckland International Airport, struggling to keep my eyes open. It had been an early start, made a little more complicated by having to jettison a couple of items at the last minute (my Kindle, a bottle of shampoo and my pillow), in order to get the weight of my bag closer to the 23 kg limit.
The day had begun with my Apple Watch vibrating me into awakedness at 3.45 am. In theory, I should have been ready to go, having packed and separated out the items I might need with me on the journey, the previous day. The trip itself, would be a little different from that of the previous year; on this occasion it would be undertaken in two legs: Auckland to Tokyo (Narita airport) and Tokyo (Haneda airport) to Asahikawa. Last year I’d flown directly to Sapporo, before traveling by rail (the Kamui) to my final destination. Another difference was that it would involve an overnight stay in Tokyo, as my Asahikawa flight wouldn’t depart until mid-morning on the Wednesday.
The drive from home to the airport was uneventful. It was a clear, calm morning and South Head Road was dry, only broken by puddles of fog whenever the road dipped into a hollow. There was little traffic through Parakai, Waimauku and even at Kumeu, which an hour or so later would be bisected by a long snake of commuters. We tanked the car at the Gull station there, and leaving the last of the fog behind, hit the northern end of the South Western motorway. Even the road works leading down to the Lincoln Road off ramp didn’t hold us up and before long we were driving through the Waterview Tunnel, and out the other side where I was surprised to read on an electronic sign that it was 18 C.
Ben dropped me off at the international terminal at around 6.00 am and headed back to wrestle his way to the city centre through the early morning traffic. My bag weighed in at 23.4 kg but the attendants let it through; fortunately I didn’t have to implement my backup plan of transferring various items (such as computer cables) from bag to back pack. After clearing Customs and the security check I wandered a couple of times around the duty-free shops, then headed to the Koru Lounge. I had a long wait ahead of me.
The lounge was full with the best seats taken. There are always plenty of comfy chairs but they are the wrong dimensions for a person of my height. They force me to either sit forward awkwardly on the edge, or to sit back with my feet barely touching the floor, so the best chairs for me are the regular ones beside the dining tables. I plonked myself down into the best of the worst and opened my laptop. My intention was to get some writing done and to avoid alcohol – it was, after all, still very early, but after 30 minutes of listening to a nearby group of women talking firstly (and at length) about who they did and didn’t like in ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (a new series is apparently running on TV3), and secondly, about how irritating Winston Peters is and how lovely Jacinda Ardern is, and then having another woman beside me coughing and sniffling, I decided I needed something. And there’s nothing like a glass of bubbly at 7.32 am.
Looking around, I observed that the area was mostly populated with grey-haired, or no-haired individuals, most of them, paired off. Yes, there were a few younger couples and singles, and I did observe one child aged around eight, but I was definitely on the younger side of the majority. Most of us were tapping away at laptop keyboards, or peering closely at mobile phones. Reading glasses were ‘de rigueur’. I thought this somewhat odd. Perhaps it was to do with it being the international lounge – I knew from experience that at that time of the morning on a week day, the domestic lounge would be filled with business types, all suited up.
The noise level was high, too. Across from where I was sitting, the barista gal was regularly bashing the coffee grounds out of the portafilter, plates were being clattered by the breakfast bar, glasses were clinking on a trolley being wheeled past, the buzz of many conversations was reaching a crescendo – the cacophony peppered with abrupt peels of laughter and muffled coughs. I could catch the odd phrase of a conversation, but it was mostly just noise, the kind that makes your eyelids grow heavy until suddenly you realise that you almost fell asleep. Or perhaps it was the one small glass of wine that was beginning to affect me. It was time to zone out.
Next stage of the trip: The flight from Auckland to Narita airport, Tokyo, and the subsequent journey between Narita and Haneda airports, and my experience as a guest of First Cabin.
Dark lines across clear blue skies
Sparks flare in my heart
Asahikawa is a sprawling city, first settled by mainland Japanese in 1889. The name ‘Asahikawa’ can be directly translated to mean ‘Sun (or ‘Morning Sun) River’. It lies along the Ishikari River (Ishigari-gawa) in the agriculturally important Kamikawa Basin. The river’s name is derived from an Ainu term, ishikaribetsu, meaning ‘greatly meandering river’, which describes the flow of its lower course. To the east of Asahikawa is the Daisetsuzan National Park and very close by are ski fields (comprising the ‘Hokkaido Powder Belt‘). It also has a well-known zoo. I’m staying at a central location, close to Tokiwa Koen.
I’ve walked through Takiwa Koen a couple of times already. The park is still mostly blanketed with snow, and while many of the paths are exposed, you still have to negotiate around slick, icy patches and there are whole areas that are completely obscured. With daily temperatures ranging from 3 to 7 C this week, it won’t be long until all the snow has melted.
The park is home to many crows. There are two species here – the Carrion, Corvus Corone, and the Large Billed, Corvus macrorhynchos. The Large Billed look especially comical and somehow ‘human’, with their fat beaks and high ‘foreheads’ – the beaks remind me of lips that have been treated with botox. There’s also a pair of mallards that I’ve seen paddling on areas of the lake with moving water, and there are other birds that I can hear chirping up high in the bare branches, but have so far have been unable to capture with my camera.
One thing I noticed yesterday was the emergence of the park benches. A couple of days ago they were nowhere to be seen, well-camoflagued under drifts of snow. Now they’re appearing here and there, decked with large and irregularly shaped white lumps.
On Wednesday I walked through the park late in the afternoon, then headed across the Asahibashi; the large green bridge that spans the Ishikari river. I was curious about a structure on the northern bank, which reminded me of something more typical of Eastern Europe, than Northern Japan. It’s called ‘Bell Classic‘ and is a venue for weddings and so forth.
Strange New Things
When I arrived a week ago, there were many things that were strange or unexpected, standing out ahead of the more subtle differences. In any new environment, ‘first impressions’ quickly become commonplace and I can feel this happening already, so I’ve decided to focus on one of these ‘differences’ each time I write, (or at least until I run out of ideas!).
Cables, Pipes and Wires
Powerlines! They’re everywhere, and not just the overhead wires, all the trappings associated with electricity are above ground, silhouetted against every skyline. They’re thick and black and many extend down into the pavement, often wrapped in bright yellow and black stripped casings.
Until seeing the lines here, I hadn’t realised how much of New Zealand’s electrical cabling is below ground or tucked away discreetly. As far as I’ve been able to work out, part of the reason is convenience. If everything is out in the open and easily accessible it saves time (and money) when repairs need to be made.
This also applies to household meters, such as those for gas. In the apartment I’m staying in, for example, the pipes just come up through the floor in the living area; the meter can be easily read. But I’ve also read that there are issues with their being so many wires above ground, both when it comes to safety (earthquakes are a risk further south, and heavy snow frequently brings lines down), and on the other side of the equation is the huge cost of converting them all to underground.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that I barely notice these wires any more. They are merely part and parcel of the scenery.
My flight to Japan was scheduled for the ungodly time of 1.15 on a Thursday morning. I arrived at the airport well in advance of this and after a less than enthusiastic circuit of the duty free stores, settled myself into the Koru Lounge for a long wait. I was barely hungry and not in the mood to drink more than a 1/2 glass of chardonnay at such an early hour, so I spent most of the time writing notes in a diary and contemplating the six weeks ahead of me.
Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido (the northern-most island of Japan) with a population of around 350,000. To get there from Auckland you have to first fly to Tokyo, and then on to Sapporo, leaving the island of Honshu behind. After that, you can either take a train or a bus for the remaining 138 km. Asahikawa‘s latitude is around 43.77N and if you were to head roughly due west for 850 km (over the Sea of Japan), you’d end up in Vladivostock, Russia – that’s how far north it is.
During my flights from Auckland to Sapporo, and on the train journey from Sapporo to Asahikawa, the reality that I was travelling to an entirely foreign country with a completely different season only became apparent in stages. The first indications emerged while I was waiting in the boarding lounge at Auckland airport, where I metamorphosised into a member of the minority culture. But it was just something I noticed – the situation didn’t feel that different. I could’ve just as easily been on the AUT campus during Orientation Week.
Then there were the suppers and breakfasts served on the Air NZ flight. On both occasions, the ‘Japanese’ option sounded more appetising, which is not to say it actually was appetising (although I have the feeling that it was better than the alternative. ‘Chicken Sausage’ never sounds appealing as a breakfast choice).
Then there was the fact that for every interruption to the films I was watching (and there were announcements at regular intervals) there was a follow-up broadcast in Japanese, timed for about a minute later, just when I’d manage to re-acquaint myself with the plot. (If anyone’s interested, I watched ‘Lion‘ and ‘Manchester by the Sea‘ and enjoyed both.) The Japanese explanations seemed to take a lot longer, and I couldn’t help wondering if I was missing something.
Auckland to Tokyo
The flight from Auckland to Tokyo takes about 10 hours. I expected to notice differences when disembarking and entering Narita airport, but there were English translations everywhere, and announcements in both Japanese and English, and it was a nice surprise to not feel vertically challenged for once. Customs control and baggage checking went smoothly and before I knew it I was free to do my own thing. I made my way from International to Domestic to board my flight to Sapporo. I had a couple of hours to wait but had already gone through the ‘point of no return’ before this dawned on me. So I was stranded in another waiting room, with not much to keep me occupied. I made a note to make sure I picked up some cash before catching the train from Sapporo.
Probably the worst aspect of the trip was the size of my suitcase. The large dimensions meant that I couldn’t use the escalators in the airports and railway stations and had to drag it behind me while I hunted around for elevators. I couldn’t even lift it higher than about 15 cm off the ground.
Tokyo to Sapporo
The flight from Narita to Sapporo took an addional 2.5 hours, but thank goodness it was an older style airbus. The cabin was much less stuffy than on the long-distance flight, and I had a window seat so could look out at the snowy terrain unfolding below. The land started out flat then became more hilly, then mountainous. When we flew over the Tsugaru Strait I saw many container vessels and it must’ve been windy as the charcoal-grey water was dotted with the white crests of waves. Then we were on the way down. And as we taxi’ed along the runway at Sapporo, it looked COLD, with grey skies, bleak buildings, and small piles of snow here and there.
Sapporo to Asahikawa
I’d been given detailed instructions on how to get from Sapporo to Asahikawa, including the purchasing of the train tickets, and finding the correct platforms and lines, so the actual ‘finding my way’ part was reasonably straight-forward. But it had been a long, tiring trip and by the time I was safely seated on the ‘Kamui‘, with my huge bag tucked tightly beside me, I was both tired and hungry.
The Kamui is a fast train and soon it was whoosing along, out of Sapporo and through the countryside. For most of the journey the terrain was flat, with almost everything covered with a blanket of snow. The houses in the small settlements we passed looked very different from those in New Zealand – they were boxy or angular, coloured with plain earthy tones, or shades of white, or in bright pastels.
And as we travelled further north, the views reminded me of Finland, with forests of bare tree trunks crowded closely together on low, mounded hills. Unlike Finland, there were occasional glimpses of snowy peaks in the distance, but this was my first impression.
After a late summer of seemingly endless blue skies, South Head received an unseasonal 124 mls of rain between 08 and 14 March. On the first soggy day we were grateful as the water tank was getting low, but by the end of the second day the novelty had worn off. The rain followed by sun has turned the vegetable garden into a jungle through which I can barely navigate.
A carpet of green
In early November, we planted three rows of kūmara tupu. ‘Tupu’ are the rooted shoots that grow on a kūmara tuber. The vines are very vigorous and are spreading all over the garden. I’m very excited about this. We’ve had mixed success with potatoes and I’d much prefer to grow kūmara if possible. We’ll have to wait until the leaves start to die down before seeing what’s hidden in the soil. This could be any time from the end of March onward and looking at our plants I suspect it’ll be more like April.
After harvest (assuming there is actually something growing underneath all those leaves) we’ll set the best aside to start a new crop next October.
Our one surviving rhubarb plant is gigantic. The stalks are fat and juicy and despite baking them into Rhubarb Tarte Tartin and adding them to cereals and desserts, many will go to waste. We also have more than we can eat of basil and silver beet, and I’m curious to see how the okra turns out. Growing okra is another ‘first’ for me, and in my ignorance, I allowed some pods to grow too long, so have cut them all off and am hoping that more will be produced before it gets cooler.
Continuing with the green theme, it looks like we’ll beat our record for limes as both trees are very well-endowed this year and also have a decent crop of new flowers. My favourite chile pepper, Habanero, is looking very fine, with each of the plants laden with flowers and young fruit. I also sowed a handful of seeds for a different squash, ‘Big Chief Butternut’, which apparently grows to 2 – 3 kg. And it is HUGE. And the capsicum (bell pepper) plants have become so large that we’ve had to support them with sturdy wooden stakes.
Zucchinis and tomatoes
This summer we’ve had the heaviest crop of both zucchinis and tomatoes since living at South Head, with green beans, coming a close third.
Scattered around the vegetable garden are self-sown Cleome. I planted a half dozen a few years back to attract green vegetable bugs and the Tomato Fruitworm, Helicoverpa armigera ssp. conferta. The Cleome attract both insects really well, but there haven’t been so many green vegetable bugs this year, and I’ve been picking off the damaged tomatoes when I come across them. The hens like drawing the fat green caterpillars out. I must admit that when I overlook one, and the tomato goes rotten from the inside, I can’t bear to look at them, let alone touch them. All that ‘goopy’ decay turns my stomach.
I’ve been freezing tomatoes in 400 gram packs for use over winter; the neat thing about outside-grown tomatoes is that they are easy to peel, which saves time later. And I’ve also bottled a batch of tomato sauce. I’ve used the zucchini for pickles and we’re eating them every other day. My favourite recipe is to slice them thickly before sautéing them with mashed garlic in a little olive oil. At the last moment, to throw in a few sage leaves. Because the Costasta romanesco variety of zucchini isn’t at all watery, the sage leaves quickly go crispy and add a delicious flavour.
And still there’s more…
There are some vegetables I haven’t really bothered with… lettuces, for example. We rarely get around to eating them and while I do have a row growing and gradually aging right now, there are several earlier plants that I’ve let go to seed; the fuzzy down drifts around the garden with the slightest breeze. Lettuces are unlikely to become a problem if they sprout everywhere… I allowed a golden turnip plant to go to seed in Spring and we now have them growing in a couple of the pathways. There are only single rows of beetroot, carrots, parsnips, golden turnip and rocket – not that you’d ever need any more than one row of rocket!
Grapes and honey bees
Yet another amazingly productive crop we’ve had this season is grapes. The vine stretches along the sun-drenched, north-facing wall of the barn and I’ve never seen as many. We can’t keep up with eating them, so they are all beginning to split and ferment on the vine.
Grapes are particularly attractive to honey bees – more so in the morning, and in the evenings I’ve seen the German wasp, Vespula germanica hovering around, so I’m hoping to observe them at dusk at the end of one of the fine Autumn days we have ahead of us, to see if we can ascertain the location of their nest.
Northern Japan in springtime
In about a week’s time I’m heading to Asahikawa in the north of Hokkaido for about five weeks. The contrast in weather will be a shock, I’m sure – going from the mid 20s to low 30s Celsius to close to 0 degrees (at least, for the first week or so), but I’m very much looking forward to my very first visit to Japan and am planning on writing about my impressions while I’m there. Because I won’t have the distraction of the garden, I should have much more time to write, which will be something I’m really looking forward to.